Hickey: Montero means big help for Olivo

Hickey: Montero means big help for Olivo

Credit: Getty Images

PEORIA, AZ - FEBRUARY 21: Jesus Montero #63 of the Seattle Mariners poses for a portrait during spring training photo day at Peoria Stadium on February 21, 2011 in Peoria, Arizona.

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by John Hickey

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on March 5, 2012 at 9:14 AM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 6 at 3:00 PM

Led by Miguel Olivo, Mariners catchers contributed 21 homers, 75 RBIs and a .214 batting average to the meager Seattle cause in 2011. Of that, 19 homers and 62 RBIs belonged to Olivo.

The power totals weren’t all that bad. The homers were sixth-most by an American League catching corps. The RBIs were seventh-best.

Not so much with the average. With Olivo’s .224, Seattle catchers were 11th among the 14 teams.

Is there any way to improve that for 2012? The Mariners are desperate to say yes.

Olivo's power numbers led the the Mariners, who won just 67 games and finished last in runs scored. At 33, he also caught 120 games and had 25 passed balls, one short of the American League lead.

The play wore on him. From the first half to the second half, his home run production went down (12 to seven), as did on-base percentage (.265 to .237), OPS (.657 to .620) and RBI (40 to 22).

What happened?  The Mariners believe they simply had to play Olivo too often. Backup Adam Moore went on the DL the first week of the season. His replacements, Josh Bard and Chris Gimenez were OK defensively, marginal offensively.

What to do? Get help. General manager Jack Zduriencik traded All-Star starter Miguel Pineda, one of Seattle’s best stories in 2011, to the Yankees to for Jesus Montero, considered the best hitting prospect in the New York system and one of the best in the game.

If things go according to script, Montero won’t catch that many games, maybe 40. Those will be 40 that Olivo won’t have to catch, although he could get some games as DH. Add a once-a-week start behind the dish for probable backup catcher John Jasoand Olivo’s starts catching could go below 100.That would be good for Olivo and for the team. Olivo, 34 in July, needs the rest.  The 130 total games he played in 2011 was a career high, and past the upper limit of where he’s comfortable.

Olivo said at the end of last year, "I think 118-120 games played as a starting catcher would be perfect." It might be a dozen or so too many, if the .213 batting average in September is any indication.

Manager Eric Wedge hasn’t spelled out how he wants to use Olivo. But in September, the manager said he wanted to push Olivo as far as he could.

"I think he has earned it," Wedge said. "He takes care of himself."

Even so, there was enough concern about overuse that Zduriencik picked up a good backup catcher in Jaso, then obtained Montero, a guy of unpolished defensive skills who could nonetheless be a huge boost to Seattle’s lackluster offense.

The Yankees didn’t need Montero to catch last year when they made him a September call-up. He played in 18 games, catching three. Scouts have been less than enthusiastic about the 22-year-old’s defense, although most see him improving with time.

The Mariners think so. They have put third base coach Jeff Datz, a former catcher himself, on the job. Wedge, also a catcher in his playing days, can’t handle the minute-to-minute work that entails, but he nevertheless keeps a close eye on the catching.

"There are always things you feel you can help a young player with and he’s no different," Wedge said. "Because we’re not in a hurry with it, Datz will do a fantastic job with it. They’ll develop that bond and working relationship day-to-day.

"He (Montero) is handling himself well."

Because the Mariners aren’t in a hurry, they can break him in slowly. That means the club will almost certainly get more offensive production out of the catcher’s spot than a year ago.

Olivo should be better for not being forced to play 130 games. The expectation is that in his infrequent time behind the plate, Montero will dwarf the two homers and 13 RBIs that non-Olivo Mariner catchers produced.

It’s a long shot that the offense will be transformed by this one change. But it's a start that has to work to elevate the Mariners from futility to respectability.

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